A Sarasota Bay shoreline moved a significant step closer to being developed Thursday, despite local environmentalists arguing it is the bay’s last long stretch of pristine mangroves.
In a 3-2 vote, Manatee County Planning Commission recommended approval of developer Carlos Beruff’s Aqua by the Bay — a proposed 2,894-home development on 529 acres between El Conquistador Parkway and Sarasota Bay, just at the south end of 53rd Avenue West. It will go before the Board of County Commissioners on May 4 for final approval.
“It’s not perfect, but I don’t see any specific things in here that I would say needs to kill the project,” planning commission member Tim Rhoades said.
As part of Aqua by the Bay, the development team told planning commissioners that no mangroves are proposed to be affected by the project.
“There are no shoreline impacts,” said Ed Vogler, the attorney representing Beruff. “There is no mangrove trimming allowed. The water quality would be enhanced.”
Beruff attended Thursday’s hearing, but did not speak about the project.
Joel Christian, Manatee County’s environmental planning division manager, said mangroves and sea grasses would not be affected. And no dredging is proposed as part of Aqua by the Bay, he said.
“This isn’t something we took lightly,” he said, adding that there were a lot of concerns with it initially.
There are “added layers of review by state and federal government to assure no adverse water quality impacts to the bay,” Christian added.
A proposed mitigation bank on the property was also mentioned several times during Thursday’s hearing. In December, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection gave notice of the intent to issue the mitigation bank permit, but local environmental groups have called for an administrative hearing to challenge the decision. The Army Corps of Engineers has yet to decide to issue its version of the permit.
“The mitigation bank is not part of this application,” Christian said. “We are reviewing what they are proposing to us.”
Vogler said the mitigation bank would enhance the project.
“We think a mitigation bank is a really good idea and we have applied for one,” Vogler said.
Even still, environmental concerns dominated much of the public comment Thursday. The majority of public comment was against Aqua by the Bay.
Pointing to a petition with more than 1,000 signatures against the proposal and almost 200 emails sent to the county, Manatee’s Sierra Club co-conservation chair said they show the “great community concern for natural resources on site.”
“This is Manatee County’s last great place,” Stuart Smith, said. “We don’t have anymore.”
Smith argued that the application for the project violated the core values in the county’s Comprehensive Plan. Someday, Smith said, the developer may instead figure out how to develop the property with the respect that it deserves.
“This is not the day,” Smith said.
Kathe Fannon, a fourth-generation fisherman in Cortez, said once the shoreline is gone, it’s gone.
“We have an opportunity to stand up, make ourselves be heard,” she said. “If you approve this, there is no Old Florida left.”
The development’s previous iteration, called Long Bar Pointe, was denied in 2013. A subject of legal challenge, Long Bar Pointe was once planned to include up to 3,600 homes, 192,000 square feet of commercial space, a hotel, a conference center and a marina and navigation channel.
After Manatee County Commission in 2013 denied amendments to the county’s Comprehensive Plan, Long Bar Pointe developers Beruff and Larry Lieberman filed an $18 million suit against the county over their claimed right to develop shore lands at the property.
But both then-Circuit Judge John Lakin and the Second District Court of Appeal ruled in favor of the county on all issues in the case.
“The county owes nothing to the developer,” Manatee County Attorney Mickey Palmer said at the time.